What does a broken heart look like? What does it sound like, dress like, feel like? Only Björk, the Icelandic singer-songwriter cum performance artist, who shot to fame with All So Quiet back in the nineties, could attempt to aestheticize the intimacies of her personal life. ‘Björk Digital’ currently on view at Somerset House this Autumn presents a series of videos and virtual reality experiences based on her latest album, Vulnicura, released in 2015 following her split with long-term partner and visual artist, Matthew Barney.
The exhibition opens with Black Lake: an immersive film on two screens facing opposite each other. Heavy base pulsates whilst Björk jerks and shudders in a trance like state enclosed within a gnarly black cave set in Iceland. Her hands beat the air, ‘did I love you too much…,’ as the music glitches and grinds, the base tickling my feet. Luminous blue volcanic lava oozes through the cave and explodes behind her as the music reaches a crescendo. The scene suddenly changes: oblivious to the elemental forces of the imposing landscape she creeps barefoot over a soft light green bed of moss dressed in a outfit which looks as though it is made out of peach coloured cellophane slinkies. It sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition: sublime, emotional, bizarre and a little disconcerting.
For the next half an hour I’m being whisked from one VR goggle headset to another. It takes some getting used to the sensation which can only be described as seeing, through closed eyes.
In Stonemilker VR, I find myself on a remote windswept beach of jagged black rocks and stormy skies (also based in Iceland) desperately trying to follow Björk who swirls around me, clad in a bright green dress. She disappears, reappears and multiplies: now there’s two of her and I have to decide which one to follow as I spin on my 360 degree stool and leave feeling completely disorientated. It’s my own private Björk performance except that, presumably, everyone in the room has seen the same thing.
If that felt nauseating, nothing could prepare for Mouthmantra VR. Jesse Kanda, director of the film, has chosen to take the audience right to the very origin of Björk’s music. Shot inside the artist’s mouth, it’s a distorted whirlpool of teeth and tongue, all fleshy and repugnant. The colours seem unnatural: magenta and deep purple. Suddenly the nightmare stops and I’m left floating, suspended in blackness – an anxiety inducing experience that feels more real than virtual.
Finally, in Notget VR I am off the stool and I stand looking up at a giant Björk avatar. As the music builds she continues to grow until she towers above me. The glowing pink and yellow pellet shaped beads that make up her body, disperse, as she flings her arms to the rhythm of the music, until they lie suspended in mid air. I reach out and walk through her torso entering into this virtual dream world. There is a sense of weightlessness – a disconnection between what I see and the body I’m experiencing it in.
No doubt Björk is a force of nature. Performance artist Marina Abramovic went as far to state that Björk ‘need[ed] nature to breath.’ Her extraordinary energy and creativity is certainly apparent within this technologically ambitious exhibition but I did leave wondering whether it was all a bit gimmicky.
How an exhibition is explored is arguably at the mercy at the viewer. We can choose whether we spend an hour or a minute with a painting, decide whether to watch the film all the way through or skip through rooms altogether. In ‘Björk Digital’ the artist, Björk, is omnipresent – she decides which way we turn, what to see and how long to spend with it. Timed entry eliminates queuing (a frequent problem with VR) but I missed the possibility to be able to explore, re-visit and spend time with each piece.
Björk Digital, Somerset House, London, WC2R 1LA, from Sep 1 – Oct 23 2016.